Tom Stemberg, the story goes, started a giant company because he couldn't buy a printer ribbon.
Stemberg died last week, after a two-year battle with cancer. He was only 66. I didn't know him, but I heard a lot about him and his story over the years. I'm sure we'd all offer condolences to his family.
There's another reason why we ought to mourn, however. It's that whether we realize it or not, the company he founded--Staples--and its contemporaries like Office Depot and OfficeMax, made it possible for thousands of American small businesses to achieve success.
In fact, if you've been an entrepreneur or run one of the nearly 29 million small businesses in the United States, I can almost guarantee you've had at least one experience of rushing to Staples at the last minute to pick up an essential item for your work.
I'm just barely old enough to remember what it was like to try to buy office furniture and supplies before these big retailers existed. In many cities, it was almost impossible--and if you could find what you needed, it was often overpriced.
Stemberg had exactly that experience. He spent hours on July 4, 1985 driving from office supply store to office supply store in Boston, only to find they were all closed or didn't have what he needed--which he later said inspired him to start Staples.
Stemberg had graduated from Harvard Business School in 1973, and went into the supermarket industry--not exactly the typical path. After a decade, he'd just been fired from his job at Star Market, after fighting with other executives. In fact that's why he was looking for office supplies on the Fourth of July: because he was working on a proposal for another new business.
"He didn't play well with other children," recalled former Massachusetts governor and presidential candidate Mitt Romney in The Wall Street Journal. Romney graduated from HBS within a year of Stemberg, and his Bain Capital invested heavily in Staples.
I wrote a book about HBS and entrepreneurship, and you can't do that without being told variations of his story many times. As a quasi-official history of the school notes, Staples was "a story of the HBS network in full gear: with advice, innovative ideas, and precious resources"--most of all, the easy access to massive amounts of capital--"moving the venture forward."
(Later, Romney credited Stemberg with convincing him to push for universal health care in Massachusetts when Romney was governor; the Massachusetts law later became the model for Obamacare.)
Stemberg left Staples eventually and was a venture capitalist at Highland Capital, where he invested in companies like City Sports and Lululemon--which he described to Inc. editor-at-large David Whitford last year as "terrestrial, mundane businesses."
In fact, he talked about being wary of investing in companies that compete now with Amazon--like, for example, Staples itself.
Still, even if it no longer seems surprising that you can order printer toner at 2 a.m. on the Fourth of July, it's worth remembering a time when that wasn't the case--and one of the men whose entrepreneurial venture pushed us in that direction.